Pilot Knob joins an impressive line up of peaks accessible from Ice Lake Basin. Perhaps Pilot Knob is the least climbed summit of this group. As one of Colorado’s highest 200 peaks, the mountain gets some attention, but it is known for its rugged reputation and challenging route. It is ranked 131, tied in elevation with Argentine Peak and one of the Grizzly Peaks. The mountain’s summit ridge is one long ridge of volcanic pinnacles.
Located west of Silverton, Pilot Knob gets to spend its time in one of the most impressive locations in Colorado, Ice Lake Basin. There is water everywhere and as a result the display of wildflowers is incredible. Entire hillsides are carpeted with flowers that stand as tall as your waist. The flowers seem to grow in patches, first you will pass through hundreds of yards of Larkspur and then yellow Indian Paintbrush followed by huge patches of Columbine. The native grasses are so green it almost hurts your eyes.
The basin is surrounded by the most incredible display of jagged peaks. The entire area is overwhelming. It would be very easy to spend a week here exploring all areas of the upper and lower basin and the mountains that surround it. There are ample camping spots in the protected lower basin as well as in the upper basin. Great care should be taken and all Leave No Trace principles should be strictly followed.
Pilot Knob is located within a cluster of five high thirteeners that offer a variety of climbing possibilities around Ice Lake Basin. Fuller Peak (13,761 feet), Vermillion Peak (13,894 feet), and Golden Horn (13,780 feet) are all day-hike summits that aren't too difficult. Pilot Knob (13,738 feet) and U.S. Grant Peak (13,767 feet) are more technical climbs for experienced summiteers only.
The San Juan Outdoor School rates Pilot Knob as a technical climb. The majority of the climb on this mountain is class 2 at best. There are 2 sections of the mountain that give the mountain its tougher rating. There is a class 3 couloir on the west side of the summit ridge. This couloir is probably the easiest way to gain the ridge to the summit. The summit ridge itself is rated class 4. There is extreme exposure and very loose San Juan rock, which makes the traverse treacherous. All but the hardy climber will want to rope up for this 200 foot section of the route.
From the east, Pilot Knob looks unclimable which adds to its mystery and allure.
The view from the top of this peak is extensive. The Wilson Massif to the west, Sneffles north, Potosi, Courthouse, Red Cliff, Coxcomb, Redcloud, Sunshine, Handies, the Needles are just some of the impressive peaks you can view.
Island Lake & U.S. Grant Peak, Ice Lake Basin, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Photo by Ellen Ritt
Climbing Pilot Knob, West Couloir Route
Photo by Ellen Ritt
Pilot Knob is most often climbed July through September during dry conditions. However, if you are confident on snow consider May or early June ascent while all that nasty scree and loose rock is buried. In exceptional conditions Pilot Knob can even be climbed in winter.
Ice Lake Basin is a massive snow shed. The lower basin melts out first, while the upper basin retains great amounts of snow well into July in normal to heavy years of snowpack. The upper basin is routinely buried through June. Skis or snow shoes may be necessary. Ascending Pilot Knob would require technical gear, and an ice axe is a good idea for the ridge approach and the mountain itself.
For winter and spring ascents, the best approach is from the west via Poverty Gulch. However do NOT use this option when there is no snow!
Do not attempt in questionable weather. Running from a San Juan thunderstorm across the vast expanse of Ice Lake Basin is something you do not want to experience. Approach with caution in the winter as well. Retreat into the lower basin in white out conditions could be a real adventure. Be mindful of the weather, which generally travels west to east, and know that in most cases, you won't see it coming since the mountains block your western view. A common San Juan trap is to climb a steep mountain, only to discover a black thunderhead on the other side just waiting for you to show up.